Two more groups sue over forest plan plan

April 17, 2019

Two regionally based environmental groups contend that roads in the Flathead National Forest can significantly impair habitat for grizzly bears and bull trout, both of which are threatened species protected in the Lower 48 by the Endangered Species Act.

The Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan filed suit Monday in federal district court in Missoula, asking the court to find that the Flathead National Forest’s revised forest plan violates the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

Earlier this month two other environmental groups filed a lawsuit challenging the revised forest plan - WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project. That litigation similarly cited concerns about the revised plan’s impacts on grizzlies and bull trout, but also described concerns about impacts to habitat for the Canada lynx and wolverine.

The latest lawsuit asks the court to set aside “unlawful provisions” of the 2018 forest plan and reinstate former habitat protections. The Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan had said in February they might sue about the revised forest plan because they felt it abandoned key measures the groups felt protect bull trout and grizzly bear habitat in the Flathead National Forest.

Specifically, the groups said the U.S. Forest Service’s renunciation of Amendment 19, which required decommissioning of existing roads before new roads could be built on the forest, created real habitat threats to grizzlies and bull trout. The amendment had called for decommissioning an additional 518 miles of roads in the Flathead National Forest.

Earthjustice filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Missoula on behalf of the Swan View Coalition and Friends of the Wild Swan.

“The Forest Service should be removing old roads in the Flathead, not building new ones that threaten grizzlies,” said Josh Purtle, a lawyer in Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies Office.

Chip Weber, forest supervisor of the Flathead National Forest, is a defendant in the lawsuit.

In February, Weber said that science, observation and conservation measures already in place demonstrate that additional road closures are not necessary to protect grizzly habitat or conserve bull trout.

He said the revised forest plan updates grizzly bear habitat management strategies to maintain conditions contributing to the recovery of the bear in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Estimates suggest there are about 1,000 grizzlies in this ecosystem and wildlife agencies are preparing for the possible delisting of the bear as a threatened species.

In the Record of Decision for the forest plan, Weber wrote, “Given the improved condition of the NCDE grizzly bear population and its habitat, I find that it is not necessary to further reduce public access by about 518 miles.”

Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, expressed a different view.

“The Flathead is abandoning road removal, the true habitat restoration it says helps grizzly bears and bull trout populations recover,” Hammer said. “The Forest Service is replacing that with road building and logging and trying to call it restoration. We don’t buy it and the science doesn’t support it.”

The lawsuit contends roads “and the motor vehicle and human intrusion those roads allow” are one of the principal threats to grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies.

The Flathead National Forest approved its revised forest plan in December. The new forest plan took more than five years to craft during a process described by the Forest Service and others as collaborative and informed by public input.

The Flathead National Forest includes about 2.4 million acres of public land in portions of Flathead, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Missoula and Powell counties.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.